Dennis Mallard eats his lunch of goulash, corn, mashed potatoes, salad and a warm roll at the Salvation Army, 1040 N. Fulton Avenue, Tuesday. Staff photo by Denny Simmons
Dennis Mallard eats his lunch of goulash, corn, mashed potatoes, salad and a warm roll at the Salvation Army, 1040 N. Fulton Avenue, Tuesday. Staff photo by Denny Simmons
EVANSVILLE — The number of people experiencing food insecurity locally is growing exponentially.

Lisa Vaughan, an organizer with Feed Evansville, has been doing relief work since the start of the pandemic.

She said many who had been living paycheck to paycheck were just one disaster away from experiencing financial hardships leading them to experience food insecurity.

The COVID-19 pandemic was that disaster for many in the community.

In Evansville, the unemployment rate shot from 3.5 percent in February to 14.8 percent in April according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Over 25,000 people were out of work that month.

The latest available unemployment numbers are for July, which showed that unemployment dropped some, to 6.9 percent. While more are slowly getting back to work, many are finding they still aren't getting their usual full amount of hours.

That loss of income pushed thousands to search for food assistance for the first time, and that need hasn't gone away even as the economy began to open back up.

And for those already experiencing food insecurity, their struggles have been compounded by this pandemic.

"I've seen a mother go without food for a day and a half because she didn't have any more money. I've seen a woman ... too scared to go to the grocery store because she's in a high-risk category. And she was living off peanut butter and crackers for two weeks," Vaughan said.

"I saw someone who was used to having a decent income and not having to worry about anything now coming through a food line and feeling completely embarrassed and ashamed. No one should have to feel that way. No one should have to deal with that."

The most immense need was during the beginning of the pandemic, she said. Area nonprofits said once people got their stimulus checks and there was an increase in SNAP assistance, the intensity of the need weakened a bit.

But now, without extra unemployment payments, no additional government assistance and many still experiencing unemployment and reduced hours, the need for more help is rising again.

Last week, Feed EVV surveyed one of their pick-up locations and found that over 50 percent of people in line that day were seeking food services for the first time.

Brooke Schleter, the Development Director at Tri-State Food Bank, said her organization is seeing a similar increase in people needing charitable food services for the first time.

Due to the effects of COVID-19, Tri-State Food Bank is expecting to serve an additional 45,000 people this year over last.

"It certainly did have a strain on us. It was like the perfect storm. We have an increase in demand of more people needing food, the decline in donations of food and disruptions to the food supply chain," Schleter said.

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So far, they've been able to meet the increase in demand and keep local pantries stocked but are predicting massive amounts of assistance will still be needed in the coming months.

Nationally, Feeding America is estimating the need for charitable food donations over the next year will be three times more than their food bank network distribution capacity.

Data from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program shows across Indiana, enrollment for the program has increased drastically. During July alone, the state issued $143,942,285 in SNAP benefits — an increase of over 111% compared to the same month last year.

Back in April, the state announced it would begin providing SNAP-enrolled families with the maximum amounts allotted for their household sizes, but families already receiving the maximum amount did not receive any increase in aide.

Courtney Johnson, founder of Young and Established, said those already vulnerable before the pandemic are struggling significantly now.

"COVID made things even more difficult for families. Especially that first month. They didn’t have transportation to the grocery store, and when they’d finally be able to get there, things would be sold out," Johnson said.

Without a second round of stimulus aid and an end to the $600 for unemployment, many are turning to nonprofits for meals.

"People who have been furloughed for six months or so or lost their job completely and using their savings to pay the mortgage, car payments, bills... getting a food box helps them stretch those funds. They're still in need and still experiencing food insecurity," Vaughn said.

The Evansville Salvation Army has noticed a rise in the need for the daily lunches they've served.

Jada Smith, the Social Services Coordinator, said since the COVID-19 pandemic they're seeing over 200 people a day for these meals.

"The biggest need is with our lunch program. We're serving a rising number of daily lunches. We’re increasing each day," Smith said.

They offer the program Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

One of the main things nonprofits say they'll need to keep doing their work is more volunteers.

Schleter said most of their regular volunteers are in high-risk categories and aren't able to help now. The national guard has stepped in since April but going forward they'll need more help.
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